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Isolated by the U.S., Iran Builds Ties With Latin America

Iran and Venezuela are launching joint ventures in sectors such as energy, agriculture, manufacturing, housing, and infrastructure.

As the United States continues to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, the Islamic regime is engaging in a foreign policy counter-attack with profound strategic consequences. The theater of strategic warfare between the United States and Iran has expanded well beyond the Middle East.

Under immense short-term pressure from both within and without, the Iranian leadership has chosen to pursue a grand strategy in the most unlikely corners of the world. From sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America, Iran is selling arms, offering aid and investments, and otherwise establishing a new pattern in south-to-south relations as it battles what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calls “Western arrogance.”

Iran’s greatest achievement in Latin America is its strong ties with oil-rich Venezuela and its burgeoning friendship with rising great power Brazil. This bid for greater influence in the U.S. backyard has not yet led to a direct confrontation. But with a nuclear agreement still up in the air, Iran’s “Latin connection” may well pose an unwelcome challenge to the Obama administration.

Iran’s Charm-Offensive

Encircled by unfriendly, if not hostile, neighbors - most allied with the United States – Iran has relied on subtle diplomacy in its quest for national survival, regional acceptance, and recognition. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran has focused on developing ties with two major countries with veto powers in the UN Security Council: China and Russia. In the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War, Iran’s growing foreign policy pragmatism encouraged its leaders to forge deeper ties with developing nations as well as with the lucrative markets of Europe. During this period, Iran strengthened its ties with Asian giants such as India, Japan, and Korea. In the late 1990s, reformists in Iran widened the circle of diplomatic contact to include Turkey and Venezuela.

After 9/11, Iran intensified its foreign policy experimentation. Although increasingly isolated from the Western order, Iran has actually gained significant ground in its ties vis-à-vis the developing world. In its own backyard, Iran has strengthened its position in the Persian Gulf by engaging in aggressive diplomacy with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It currently enjoys strong ties with Qatar and stable relations with Bahrain and Oman.

Iran has also been at the forefront of rhetorical pronouncements, initiatives, and grand agreements adopted by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which encompasses a majority of the world’s population. In 2008, Iran hosted the 15th meetingof NAM Foreign ministers with 118 countries, 15 observers, and eight regional and international organizations attending the mega-event. The meeting concluded with a pledge of support for Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is set to host the 16 th NAM summit in 2012. In Africa, Iran has established strong ties with Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, and Kenya. In exchange for diplomatic support from key African nations, especially in the UN General Assembly, Iran has offered generous packages of aid, investments, and technology transfers. For instance, Iran has become one of the leading importers of Kenya’s tea exports and a major investor in the country’s energy and infrastructural sectors. In addition to offering humanitarian aid on at least 93 occasions, Iran has helped to mechanize Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector.

Following in the footsteps of China and Russia, Iran is aggressively courting the left-leaning powers in Latin America, challenging the United States in its own backyard. One of the fruits of Iran’s diplomatic labor in Latin America was Brazil and Venezuela’s vote in the 35-member IAEA Board of Governors. In late November 2009, as Iran’s secret enrichment plan was revealed, Brazil abstained and Venezuela opposed a resolution that called on Iran to halt uranium enrichment and immediately freeze the construction of its new nuclear facility near Qom. In economic terms, Venezuela is Iran’s biggest market in Latin America, while Brazil is the continent’s biggest exporter to Iran.

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